ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — A bill to regulate social media platforms such as Facebook and address foreign interference in local elections on social media will become law in Maryland without Gov. Larry Hogan’s signature, the governor said Friday, citing “serious constitutional concerns” relating to the First Amendment.
Maryland officials who support the measure have called it a first-of-its kind law in the country for its expansiveness and the powers it provides the Maryland State Board of Elections to investigate social media ads. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, signed a similar measure to bring transparency to online political ads into law last month.
Maryland lawmakers passed the bill in April in the aftermath of alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential race. Hogan, a Republican, wrote that the Maryland measure seeks to achieve “a number of laudable goals” he strongly supports. They include modernizing state election laws to regulate electronic communication on the internet and requiring additional disclosure and transparency for those advertising on social media platforms. But Hogan said the bill raises constitutional concerns, because it will force news media websites to publish ad purchases.
Hogan noted opposition from the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association, which says forcing media organizations to publish violates the First Amendment. The governor also wrote that the press association representing the state’s daily newspapers asked him to veto the bill.
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“The free press is a cornerstone of our republic, and the press corps’ concern that this legislation would compel speech by news outlets is a precedent I am deeply concerned about establishing,” Hogan said.
The bill is similar in some respects to one introduced in Congress that would require digital platforms with at least 50 million monthly visitors to maintain a public file of advertisers who spend more than $500 in ads on the platform. But the Maryland measure goes much further, because it would apply to digital platforms with 100,000 monthly visitors. Maryland does not have a monetary threshold, though the law would only apply to platforms that reach more than 500 people.
Rebecca Snyder, executive director of the press association, said the organization remains concerned that the law is unconstitutional. She said she has heard from some members of the association mention a potential legal challenge.
“I do not know if that will happen, but it has been raised,” Snyder said, adding that the lower monthly visitor threshold “reaches down very deep” in terms of how many websites will be affected.
The law requires platforms to create a public database identifying ad purchasers within 48 hours of purchase. Online platforms would need to retain digital copies of the ads.
Sen. Craig Zucker, a Montgomery County Democrat who was one of the bill’s sponsors, said the measure basically extends disclosure rules now applying to political ads for radio, television and print to social media.
The law, which will take effect July 1, also will prohibit the use of foreign currencies in buying ads in Maryland elections. It creates a regulatory structure at the Maryland State Board of Elections to regulate and investigate complaints about online advertising or voter suppression. If the board finds ads may have been purchased by a foreign entity prohibited from buying them, the board will have powers to seek the removal of the ads from the platform.
Facebook supported the measure.
“We believe this bill will be a national model for the other 49 states to follow,” Will Castleberry, Facebook’s vice president of state and local policy, said last month.
This story has been corrected to show that a New York measure was signed into law last month.